Samuel Beckett, Endgame
Reading with Literary Theory
Critical Theory * Marxist Theory * Postmodernism
Samuel Beckett's Endgame (1958) has been praised as an unflinching commentary on the human condition in the wake of the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust. From a perspective informed by Critical Theory, Beckett's play critiques the UNIVERSAL values of Enlightenment humanism, which are exposed as self-serving mystifications that rationalize and instrumentalize the practices of social life. Theodor Adorno, who found Beckett to be one of the few “authentic” artists in the modern era, famously noted that “[t]o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” However, he also praised artists like Beckett, who were able to wring poetry out of the desolation, despair, and dehumanization resulting from the humanist project of Enlightenment. Endgame is a glimpse into a world where the dignity and majesty of humanity - its ideals, aspirations, philosophies and discoveries, its spirituality and high mindedness - are stripped away. Dreams of a benign humanism are mercilessly pilloried by Hamm: “Use your head, can't you, use your head, you're on earth, there's no cure for that!” (53). The reduction of human existence to a disease and human aspirations to a mundane concern for the epiphenomena of material social conditions is dramatized in spare stage settings and a small random collection of objects - ladder, alarm clock, toy dog, telescope - that serve primarily to underscore the utter lack of a meaningful human social context. This new condition is symbolized by the views afforded by two windows: a “zero” world in which the earth and the sea (the “without”) lack light and living inhabitants. As Clov puts it, “the earth is extinguished though I never saw it lit” (81). Despite this dismal outlook, he and Hamm manage to remain together (for “the dialogue,” Hamm claims), barely maintaining the belief that “we're getting on” (14), that “something is taking its course” (11), that they might someday “mean something” (32).
The impoverished human condition Beckett dramatizes invites a Marxist reading in which the relationship between Hamm and Clov allegorizes the class struggle between capitalists and the proletariat. Hamm's mistreatment of Clov in this reading would signify the capitalist's dehumanizing domination of his workers. Their complementary deformities - Clov cannot sit, Hamm cannot stand or see - comically renders the unceasing labor of the worker and the insulation from labor of the capitalist class. Hamm's insistence on being in the precise center of the room signifies both his tyrannical power and Clov's servile submission to that power. Both capitalist and worker are represented as estranged from the human values of work and reduced to mindless functionaries: “Every man his speciality” (10). This is certainly a plausible, if “vulgar,” reading, which lacks the kind of nuance that would capture the ways in which Beckett's characters are entirely caught up in the dehumanized social world of which they appear to mourn the loss. We could instead read Endgame in terms of the “post-Marxist” critique of HEGEMONY, in which case the relationship between Hamm and Clov signifies not class struggle but rather the power of IDEOLOGY to achieve a non-coercive form of consensus. On this reading, Hamm's authority over Clov is ideological; it is not a function of brute force (his physical disabilities preclude it) but rather of a process whereby Hamm convinces Clov that his view of the world is the most reasonable, even natural one. As he looks out the window, Clov tells Hamm: “I warn you. I'm going to look at this filth since it's an order. But it's the last time” (78). Of course, it is not the last time, because he has already offered up his consent to a “one-dimensional world.”
In some respects, a Marxist reading is foreclosed by the lack of any clear historical context. Beckett's play is precisely about this lack of context, this lack of any meaningful historical consciousness. Hamm and Clov thus allegorize the “Postmodern condition,” which is characterized by immobility, passivity, incompleteness, lack of desire, and “affect”: “Is it not time for my pain-killer?” Hamm asks (7). It is a general condition, as Hamm reminds Clov: “One day you'll be blind like me” (36). This thematic insistence on Postmodern meaninglessness is reflected in the play's deconstruction of dramaturgy. Dialogue is desultory, repetitive, fragmented, often monosyllabic. There is no “point,” no rising action, no action at all, really, aside from Clov's attempt to kill a rat (which takes place off-stage). There are no complications, no crisis, no denouement, no decisive conclusion, no patterns of significance. Endgame opens with a parody of Calvary: “Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished” (1). These lines both cite the Passion of Christ, a foundational MASTER NARRATIVE of Western culture, and announce its inadequacy as a meaningful narrative legitimation of contemporary society. They signal the impossibility of finishing or, worse, the probability that things are already finished. In any case, it is the outcome of what Jean-Frangois Lyotard calls delegitimation, the process by which master narratives lose their power to legitimize social, political, and cultural discourses. All that is left are dreams - “What dreams! What forests!” (3) - and the ineffectual invocation of nature goddesses: “Flora! Pomona!” (39). The past is reduced to “yesterday” (15), “that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day. I use the words you taught me” (43-44). Tradition is fragmented and misquoted, as with the echo of Shakespeare's Richard III: “My kingdom for a nightman” (23). The delegitimation of master narratives and other forms of cultural authority does not mean the end of stories, however, for it is precisely stories, paltry though they may be, that bind these characters together. Aimless, episodic anecdotes of a barely remembered life constitute a precarious bond, a social contract for a “post-human” era. “[W]e are obliged to each other,” Hamm says at the conclusion of the play, caught up in an interminable endgame, whose outcome is implicit in its beginnings: “old endgame lost of old, play and lose and have done with losing” (82). In Beckett's Postmodern universe, the “old endgame” is reduced to a “little turn… . right round the world! … Hug the walls then back to the center again” (25). There are no grand strategies, no winning or losing, nothing really but “getting on.”
Beckett, Samuel. Endgame and Act without Words. New York: Grove Press, 1958.